Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Residents Celebrate Island as Hometown | Islanders Emphasize That Beach Community Is Not Just for Tourists

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Residents Celebrate Island as Hometown | Islanders Emphasize That Beach Community Is Not Just for Tourists

Article excerpt

ANNA MARIA ISLAND

ANNA MARIA ISLAND -- After her younger sister died of cancer, Jean Peelen made her first visit to Anna Maria Island.

"I needed a place to grieve where people didn't know me" and benefited from "the healing powers of walking on the beach," Peelen remembered.

When she retired as a civil rights lawyer for the federal government in 2008, Peelen decided to leave Washington, D.C., and become a full-time islander. "I never looked back."

Now in her third term as a Holmes Beach city commissioner, Peelen planted her roots deeply in the island's sandy soil -- becoming immersed in the laid-back,

subtropical lifestyle. Yet, as a resident, she is now among many who think the island is at risk of losing its hometown character.

A recession that caused many homeowners to go "underwater" with their mortgages combined with year-after-year record highs for tourism and a rush by investors to convert residential properties into vacation homes with eight to 10 bedrooms led to trends that Peelen and others find disturbing.

According to Peelen: In the past five years, the island lost 20 percent of its voting population. Only half of the pupils at Anna Maria Elementary now reside on the island. Some churches that have lost parishioners are considering moving to the mainland.

Determined to restore "a balance" between island residents and visitors, Peelen and other elected commissioners from the cities Bradenton Beach and Anna Maria organized a community meeting about the issue at St. Bernard's Catholic Church in October 2015.

They thought just a few residents may attend and instead were delighted to see about 120 come to share the same concerns.

Out of that meeting, Peelen and about 20 others decided to organize "Anna Maria Island: Home Sweet Home," an initiative to "get the word out that this is a wonderful place to live."

With its mix of condos as well as old-fashioned cottages, walkable business districts and miles of sugar white beaches, the island Peelen calls home is "the most beautiful, safe, low-key, low- rise, charming, quirky place to live that I can imagine."

Although it now has a website (OurAnnaMaria. …

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